"The Impulse of Man's Heart"

  • Rav Chaim Navon
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Theological Issues In Sefer Bereishit

Yeshivat Har Etzion

LECTURE #14: "The Impulse of Man's Heart"

By Rav Chaim Navon

The Torah

Parashat Bereishit ends with God's very pessimistic evaluation of man:

And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that all the impulse of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord repented that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart. (Bereishit 6:5-6)

We shall not deal here with the theological issue – how God repented or grieved; did He not know from the outset how things would develop? Here we shall deal with a different question: man's natural inclination. Is man essentially good, or is he corrupt and egotistical? In this case, the Torah seems to be making a clear and unequivocal assertion. Moreover, God repeats this idea a second time, this time in a positive context. Following the flood, God reaches the conclusion that the evil heart of man is good reason to be lenient about punishing him:

And the Lord said in His heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake, for the impulse of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more everything living, as I have done. (Bereishit 8:21)

We bring here Ramban's characteristic interpretation of the verse:

"For the impulse of man's heart is evil from his youth." He ascribes merit to men because by their very creation they have an evil nature in their youthful days but not in their mature years. If so, for these two reasons, it is not proper to smite every living thing. The reason for the 'mem' [which signifies "from" in the word] 'min'urav' (from his youth) is to indicate that the evil impulse is with men from the very beginning of their youth, just as the Rabbis have said: "From the moment he awakes to go forth from his mother's womb the evil impulse is placed in him" (Bereishit Rabba 34, 12). It is possible that the verse is saying that it is from youth – meaning, on account of youth – that the evil inclination is in man, for youth causes him to sin.[1] (Ramban, commentary to Bereishit 8:21)

Thus, the Torah's view on this topic seems to be quite clear. Even though man controls his destiny and personality, as we see in God's words to Kayin – "and you shall rule over it" – man's natural inclination is to do evil rather than good. The gates of interpretation, however, remain open, and there is always room to say that the Torah describes here only one aspect of man, one period of time, or the like. This, for example, is the way Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains the verse, "for the impulse of man's heart is evil from his youth":

Now, as far as we can see, the following, "for the impulse of man's heart is evil from his youth," has been completely erroneously taken to be the cause of this new determination of destiny… The words, "for the impulse, etc.," are in parenthesis: If the impulse of the heart of man should be evil again, and even in his youth, so that the only way of saving it would be the destruction of the generation, nevertheless I will not again, as I did… Youths are neither righteous nor evil. Woe unto them that take the average of child and adolescent nature to be evil! Who has really observed children say, No, it is not true that youth is bad, the impulse of man's heart is not evil from his youth, it is not in his youth that man names evil his ideal. In normal times one finds a much greater number of adults than of adolescents whose hearts and minds are directed to evil. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, commentary to Bereishit 8:21)

Rabbi Hirsch understands that the verse is not making an assertion, but rather setting a condition: even if the heart of man will be evil from his youth, even then I shall not destroy mankind. Under normal circumstances, argues Rabbi Hirsch, the heart of youth is not evil. And indeed, the question of man's basic nature has been the subject of dispute among Jewish Sages as well as gentile thinkers. This is one of the most important and decisive issues in our spiritual world.

The Jewish Sages

It is well known that Rabbi Kook believed that man is fundamentally good and beneficent. Deep within man lies the spirit of God, and so essentially he is good and not bad. Rabbi Kook saw in this an educational and moral guideline:

An upright man must believe in his life, that is to say, he must believe in his own life and feelings that follow a straight path from the foundation of his soul, that they are good and upright and that they lead him along the straight path… A Jew is obligated to believe that the soul of God is found within him, that his entire essence is one letter of the Torah. (Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Orot ha-Torah, chap. 11)

This position has become widespread and popular in our day. It is based upon Rabbi Kook's mystical outlook, according to which evil, when viewed in a larger context, is also part of the world's general tendency toward goodness and holiness:

After the Divine light will shine upon the entire universe, after everything that exists will be repaired, it will become clear that everything is absolutely good. Though when we look upon particular portions of the world we encounter exceedingly evil sights, this is only because we do not see all of God's great work from beginning to end. However, when the light of the all-inclusive will shine, and the appearance of holiness will sparkle upon the souls, to listen to the voice of God in all His actions, then will it become clear that every point in the universe is a treasure full of good. (Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Olat Ra'aya, I, p. 210)

In contrast, some of the major representatives of the Mussar movement presented a most pessimistic view of man. To illustrate this point, we bring here the words of Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer:

Because man was formed from dust of the ground, his heart inclines to material desires, to eat, drink, and be merry, to covet fortune and riches, to love honor and power, to don haughtiness and pride to swell his heart, to delight in carnal pleasures, in every lowly trait and every despicable desire.

And with this, the impulse of his heart is only evil continually, namely the evil inclination of his spiritual element[2]…

Unlike these are the ways of fear, the fear of Heaven and the fear of His punishment, blessed be His name; for this fear is not in man's nature… (Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer, Sha'arei Or, in Or Yisrael, 6b-7a)

Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer argues that man's nature contains two evil inclinations: first, his carnal desires, and second, the Satan who seeks devices to cause man to stumble and commit evil sins. In contrast, man's fear of Heaven is not natural or inborn.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik presents a more complex position. He maintains that man is neither fundamentally good nor fundamentally bad (similar to the position formulated earlier by Rabbi S.R. Hirsch). Man has great potential, and it falls upon him to exploit that potential in a positive manner. As opposed to Rabbi Kook who speaks about the need to uncover the good in man, Rabbi Soloveitchik speaks about the need to create the good in man. We are not dealing here with a given, but with a mission:

Indeed, Judaism has sanctified man, teaching that he contains within him a divine spark; Judaism has never accepted the position that man is in a state of sin by his very nature. On the contrary, we have taught that the challenge standing before man and the possibilities open to him are boundless. In the eyes of Judaism, man is in potentia a good creature, a developing creature. He often finds himself, however, in the grips of an overwhelming and irresistible force that drags him downward…

In short, Scripture trusts man, but also suspects and has its doubts about him. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Divrei Hagut ve-Ha'arakha, pp. 252-253)

Rabbi Soloveitchik reports a family tradition: His grandfather, Rav Chayyim, was known for his great acts of lovingkindness. Rabbi Soloveitchik relates that this was not one of Rav Chayyim's inborn qualities, but one that he had developed on his own. By nature, he was not good at all.

[Rav Chayyim's] warm and magnanimous heart was shaped and formed by the force of internal will. My father, of blessed memory, told me that Rav Chayyim had once told him: "Moshe, do not think that I am good. By nature, I am bad. Man must seize lovingkindness by force. Man must break himself. I worked rigorously until I eradicated the trait of cruelty from within me." (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Yemei Zikharon, p. 79)

It should be noted that support may be adduced for Rabbi Soloveitchik's position not only from the scriptural verses cited above, but primarily from the very existence of Halakha. Halakha is a detailed system of laws and guidelines, the existence of which can only be justified if we assume that man by his very nature will not necessarily do what is good, and therefore he must be forced to so by a detailed system of commandments and laws. If man were fundamentally good, it would be unnecessary to force him to do what is good. The heavy emphasis that Judaism puts on Halakha gives expression to a certain skepticism about man's nature.

I often offer a classic example to illustrate Halakha's attitude on this matter. The Shulchan Arukh, the most accepted and influential halakhic code in the Jewish world, opens with a stormy demand:

One should strengthen himself like a lion to get up in the morning for the service of his Creator. He should rise early enough to usher in the dawn. (Shulchan Arukh, OC 1:1)

Rema, however, immediately adds:

One should at any rate not get up too late to pray the morning prayer service at the time that the community pray it. (Rema, ibid.)

Rema lowers the excitement and intensity in the call of the author of the Shulchan Arukh to the plain of reality. Not every person wakes up in the morning filled with enthusiasm and vigor; one can say with reasonable certainty that most people get up in the morning more like a cat than like a lion. It is, therefore, fitting to establish clear and unequivocal guidelines that do not depend upon the good will and enthusiasm of the individual. Rema's dry and prosaic attitude is a bit disappointing after the poetic tempest of the Shulchan Arukh, but his words seem to be more meaningful to most people who get up in the morning for prayer.

This is the way of Halakha, the divine command: meticulous concern with well-defined and finely-detailed laws, with all their branches and particulars, and unconcealed skepticism about religious feeling that is not firmly fixed in absolute definitions and measurements. Rabbi Soloveitchik once said that if Halakha would have a mitzva to prepare a holiday-tree, many chapters in the Shulchan Arukh would be devoted to a clarification of its precise form, the number of branches, who is bound by the obligation and who is exempt, where may the presents be hung, if at all, and other precisely formulated particulars. Halakha does not rely on the good will and emotional identification of man. This attitude assumes a certain understanding of human nature.

Non-Jewish Thinkers

One of the central controversies in the modern era focuses upon the basic nature of man: Is man by his very nature good or is he fundamentally evil?

Two important western traditions see man's basic nature as dubious at best. The first tradition is Christianity. Christianity has argued that in the wake of the "primal sin," every man is born a sinner. One of the outstanding representatives of this tradition is Augustine, one of the Church fathers of the fourth century of the Common Era:

Who brings to remembrance the sins of my infancy? For in thy sight there is none free from sin, not even the infant who has lived but a day upon this earth. Who brings this to my remembrance? Does not each little one, in whom I now observe what I no longer remember of myself? In what ways, in that time, did I sin? Was it that I cried for the breast?… Nor was it good, even in that time, to strive to get by crying what, if it had been given me, would have been hurtful; or to be bitterly indignant at those who, because they were older – not slaves, either, but free – and wiser than I, would not indulge my capricious desires. Was it a good thing for me to try, by struggling as hard as I could, to harm them for not obeying me, even when it would have done me harm to have been obeyed? Thus, the infant's innocence lies in the weakness of his body and not in the infant mind. I have myself observed a baby to be jealous, though it could not speak; it was livid as it watched another infant at the breast… But is this innocence? (Augustine, Confessions, chap. VII)

Augustine maintains that man is born an evil sinner; his inclination to sin may already be found among newborn infants.

The second tradition that casts doubts upon man's natural righteousness is the English philosophical tradition from the eighteenth century on. English philosophers were skeptical about man's nature. Thus, for example, the English philosopher and economist Adam Smith argued that man is fundamentally egotistical, not overly concerned about the suffering of others:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labors of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren. (Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part III, chap. 1, par. 46)

The English philosopher Thomas Hume argued that human society was established because people wished and needed to protect themselves from the aggression that lies concealed in human nature:

The final cause, end, or design of men (who naturally love liberty, and dominion over others) in the introduction of that restraint upon themselves, in which we see them live in Commonwealths, is the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby; that is to say, of getting themselves out from that miserable condition of war which is necessarily consequent, as hath been shown, to the natural passions of men when there is no visible power to keep them in awe, and tie them by fear of punishment to the performance of their covenants, and observation of those laws of nature set down in the fourteenth and fifteenth chapters.

For the laws of nature, as justice, equity, modesty, mercy, and, in sum, doing to others as we would be done to, of themselves, without the terror of some power to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural passions, that carry us to partiality, pride, revenge, and the like. (Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Part II, chap. 17)

Hobbes assumes that human nature would lead to miserable life marked by war and hatred, were it not for the fact that social institutions have been established to punish criminals and compel the proper way of life.

To these two traditions (the Christian and the English) was added a third tradition in the twentieth century – the psychoanalytic approach. Freud uncovered – or claimed to have uncovered – the truly loathsome essence of man. In Freud's eyes the two basic drives that move man are Eros, sexual love, and Thanatos, aggression. Society's institutions and internal inhibitions are the only things that prevent a person from behaving like a wild beast:

Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus (Man is a wolf to man). Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion? (Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, V)

Freud argued that beneath the mask of man's personality lie the powerful drives of lust and aggression, which truly pull the strings of man's conduct. "Man is a wolf to man," says Freud. Let us, then, make no sentimental mistakes regarding man's problematic nature.

The Renaissance and the Enlightenment, however, also saw the birth of a different tradition in the West. This tradition skipped over Christianity and reconnected with the classical period, Greek and Roman philosophy, arguing that man by nature is good and praiseworthy. The French philosopher Montesquieu rejected the position of Hobbes:

Hobbes inquires, "For what reason go men armed, and have locks and keys to fasten their doors, if they be not naturally in a state of war?" But is it not obvious that he attributes to mankind before the establishment of society what can happen but in consequence of this establishment, which furnishes them with motives for hostile attacks and self-defense? (Charles de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, Bk. I, chap. 2)

Montesquieu argued, in contrast to Hobbes, that the evil conduct of man is not a given of human nature, but rather a result of perverted social institutions. Jean Jacques Rousseau developed this idea, arguing the exact opposite of Hobbes, that natural man is better and nobler than modern man, and that it is only the institutions of society that have corrupted him:

Let us lay it down as an incontestable maxim that the first movements of nature are always right. There is no original perversity in the human heart. There is not a single vice about which one cannot say how and whence it came. (Jean Jacques Rousseau, Emile, Bk. II, par. 267)[3]

It may be justly said that savages are not bad merely because they do not know what it is to be good: for it is neither the development of the understanding nor the restraint of law that hinders them from doing ill; but the peacefulness of their passions, and their ignorance of vice. There is another principle which has escaped Hobbes… an innate repugnance at seeing a fellow-creature suffer… I am speaking of compassion… a feeling, obscure yet lively in a savage, developed yet feeble in civilized man… Now, it is plain that such identification must have been much more perfect in a state of nature than it is in a state of reason… Nothing but such general evils as threaten the whole community can disturb the tranquil sleep of the philosopher, or tear him from his bed. A murder may with impunity be committed under his window; he has only to put his hands to his ears and argue a little with himself, to prevent nature, which is shocked within him, from identifying itself with the unfortunate sufferer. Uncivilized man has not this admirable talent; and for want of reason and wisdom, is always foolishly ready to obey the first promptings of humanity. It is the populace that flocks together at riots and street-brawls, while the wise man prudently makes off. It is the mob and the market-women, who part the combatants, and hinder gentle-folks from cutting one another's throats. (Jean Jacques Rousseau, A Dissertation on the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind, pt. 1)

It is important to note that two separate issues have become intermingled here. All agree that the situation today is not good. Therefore, the higher we elevate the worthiness of natural man, the more we are forced to blame the institutions of society. And conversely, the more we question man's basic nature, the more we will see society's institutions as a necessary constraint, without which we could not live at all. This point was emphasized by Antoin Nicolas Condorcet in the eighteenth century:

Is there any vicious habit, any practice contrary to good faith, any crime, whose origin and first cause cannot be traced back to the legislation, the institutions, the prejudices of the country wherein this habit, this practice, this crime can be observed? (Nicolas Condorcet, Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, chap. 10)

In order to illustrate the uniqueness of his position, let us bring in contrast the words of Alexander Hamilton, one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, a collection of essays intended to explain the American constitution:

Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint. (Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist, 15)


[1] Firstly, that man is born with an evil inclination; and secondly, this evil inclination influences him primarily during his youth, and less so in his old age.

[2] I.e., the force that seeks devices to cause man to stumble in sin.

[3] See also Emile, Bk. I, par. 10: "Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the author of things, everything degenerates in the hands of man."

(Translated by David Strauss)